Liquid Assets

The future of digital water technology is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet

While not quite the end of the year, this is the season that causes me to look back as a way to consider what the next 12 months may hold. Earlier this year I published an article in this GreenBiz column titled "5 trends that will guide the flow of water strategy in 2018." In my discussion of one trend — "Prepare for expanded democratization of actionable water information" — I made the case that digital water technology adoption would provide real-time water data (quantity and quality) and actionable information to stakeholders.

In retrospect, this was a fairly narrow view of the digital water technology trend and, more important, speed of adoption.

In hindsight, the digital trend in 2018 was more expansive and gained greater traction than I predicted several months ago. To varying degrees, digital water technologies are being deployed within the industrial, commercial, residential, agricultural and utility sectors. In some sectors, such as within water and wastewater facilities, the adoption of digital water technologies is relatively rapid.

Indeed, the most obvious opportunity for digital water technology adoption is within the water and wastewater utility sector. In particular, digital technologies provide tools to improve water utility infrastructure performance, the efficiency and effectiveness of infrastructure repair, and capital investments.

Utilities have the opportunity to have every asset recorded within their GIS system with structured and unstructured data from across all departments for actionable insights to decrease costs and risks. One example of a tool that does just this is Redeye. They are also using satellite imaging applications, such as the type offered by Utilis, for cost-effective leak detection and smart remote sensing products, such as those offered by Kando, to provide early detection and prediction on wastewater conditions.

A growing number of asset management systems include artificial intelligence applications to manage infrastructure assets, such as the technologies developed by emagin. In addition, virtual and augmented reality (AR) technologies can provide utility workforces with apps and dashboards to provide more efficient asset management repair and replacement. One company that offers this sort of capability is Metawater Co., which provides water facility maintenance support using AR technology from Fujitsu.

Utilities also can better understand resource availability through satellite imagery, via data and analytics of the NASA GRACE program; or they could improve flood predictions with services provided by companies such as Cloud to Street. These organizations also can better connect to their customers. In turn, those customers have "smart home" solutions to efficiently manage their water use.

Elsewhere, companies such as dropcountr and WaterSmart are providing utilities and customers with water use data, and Microlyze is focused on real-time water quality measurement at the tap. Other players, including Rachio and Hydropoint, offer smart residential irrigation and home water management solutions.

This year, industry associations such as the International Water Association sharpened their focus on the digital transformation of water. The theme factored prominently during the World Water Congress and Exhibition in Tokyo with several sessions on digital water transformation. The World Economic Forum has included digital water technology as part of its Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) initiative (that effort is explained in "Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Water."

One of the most important signs that digital water technology is gaining traction is evidenced by merger and acquisition activity involving technology startups that offer these products and services. Here’s a list of some recent buyouts and investments.

  • Suez invested in Optimatics, which offers software for planning infrastructure, before acquiring the startup in October. 
  • Kurita has funded multiple companies focused on digital solutions including water analytics company Apana and Fracta, an AI-focused water startup.
  • Xylem acquired monitoring software company Valor Water Analytics.
  • Suez’s acquisition of GE’s water business is also viewed, in part, as an acquisition focused on GE’s water data and analytics management platform InSight.

To quote science fiction writer William Gibson (author of "Neuromancer"), "The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed, yet." This sentiment aptly applies to the digital transformation of water. I expect that in 2019, and the years to come, we will see the rapid scaling of these technologies along with the emergence of digital offerings and services that have yet to be developed.